Posted by: tootingtrumpet | May 24, 2021

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 24 May 2021

Ball One – Notts go pop!

Not Luke Fletcher

If you’ve been reading your current edition of Tatler, you will have seen a similar headline heralding the scoop that evaded Ali Martin – “Exclusive: Stuart Broad is bowled over by new fiancée Mollie King in their first ever shoot and interview.” For non-subscribers (and there must be one or two reading this), you can buy a copy and read pages and pages about the ” famously private” pair.

It was less Posh and Becks and more Bosh and Decks in the day job for “Joss Butler’s” teammate, as Nottinghamshire’s roaring back into form continued with a third successive win (innings, innings and 310 runs the margins) – enough to go top of Group One by nine points.

The Bosh was provided by Ben Duckett – unlikely to feature in the pages of the socialites’ bible, but back in the cricket press with 177 not out – and captain, Steve Mullaney’s, 88 off 73 balls, as the charge to maximum batting points concluded successfully.

The Decks was the superb use made of the pitch and atmospherics by Luke Fletcher (the cult hero is more privately famous than famously private), who, like his county, is going through a golden spell in the gloomy weather. 7-37 blew away Worcestershire first innings for 80 and 3-20 second time round gave the old (well, not that old in this week) warhorse a maiden ten-fer in the match.

And Broad? 28.5 – 8 – 59 – 5 – so not just a pretty face?

Ball Two – Siddle in the middle

Essex, having played a game more than Notts, lie second in Group One having squeezed 12 points out of a rain-affected draw with Warwickshire.

Their star man was another veteran who runs in, puts it there or thereabouts and asks questions of batsmen’s techniques and mentality ball after ball after ball. Peter Siddle’s first innings figures of 21 – 5 – 38 – 6 helped secure precious bonus points and underlined just how many ways in which the champions can bowl sides out.

It also raised a hardy perennial – what exactly is the relevance to England’s international ambitions of a retired Australian seamer doing what he’s done for 15 years at a chilly Chelmsford?

I’d suggest two answers for that question. That current England opener, Dom Sibley, returning after a spell out injured, batted over a session in such circumstances augurs well for his return to the Test XI. It also showed two batsmen with England hopes (Rob Yates b Siddle 0 and Sam Hain LBW b Siddle 10) what it takes to make runs when conditions are against you.

My second answer is somewhat briefer. So what?

Ball Three – Abell canes Dent

Just a point separates West Country rivals, Gloucestershire and Somerset, at the top of Group Two (though Chris Dent’s men have a game in hand).

With not much more than the equivalent of a day’s play possible, the draw was always on the cards, but Somerset will be the happier of the sides, taking 13 points back to Taunton, leaving the hosts with 10. Depth of batting was key to that haul, Tom Abell playing a captain’s knock to anchor the innings with a near-seven hour 132* (I wonder if he said, “I am just going outside and may be some time.”) but required to wait until Lewis Gregory joined him to find a reliable partner. His 57 was a fine effort from the all-rounder, who finds himself down at nine these days, if required to bat at all.

Gloucestershire were in trouble at 27-6 with the inevitable Craig Overton claiming four wickets between the showers, but moral victories don’t registered in the points column and Gloucestershire stay top.

Ball Four – Not plain sailing in London

It took plenty of will to play as much cricket as they did at The Oval, with the cold and rain threatening the players’ wellbeing and the winds threatening the groundstaff charged with anchoring covers that turn into sails once caught in the howling gales. But the London rivals got it on and provided plenty of entertainment for anyone brave (I think that’s the right adjective) enough to watch on from the exposed seating.

It was a strange match in which longish stands were punctuated by clattering collapses. Were you to be told that Surrey’s opening pair twice built a platform of 135 runs before surrendering a wicket and handing things over to a middle order packed with stroke makers, you might expect to read of a third 550+ score for Rory Burns’ men in 2021. Not so – a tweetworthy collapse from 135-0 to 142-6, as Middlesex’s change bowlers got in amongst ’em, turned thoughts of 500+ into 200-.

Middlesex’s batting, as brittle as a poppadom this season, needed John Simpson’s 68 to hold the first innings deficit at 30 and, after some positive play from the home side, Burns underlining his blossoming form with a century, they set off in pursuit of 290 in what proved to be 56.3 overs. It was on for a while too, as Nick Gubbins batted fluently for 124 and Peter Handscomb, hitherto in shocking form and haircut, found the middle of the bat at last en route to 70.

So all that endeavour, laudable though it was, produced a draw that does neither side any favours. With three matches left, both may have to win them all to progress as they wish, but even that may not be enough.

Ball Five – Rainy Days and Mondays

Lancashire leapfrogged Yorkshire to the top of Group Three with the eight points awarded for a draw after just 34.3 overs were possible at Wantage Road. Northamptonshire, with four matches to play, are not out of it, but will have to play well and add at least a couple more wins to the two they have if they are to split the Roses counties at the end of the stage.

The impact of weather on a ten match group stage is beginning to emerge as a flaw in a format that has (so far at least) been largely welcomed by fans – albeit, fans might have welcomed a five or 105 match format as long as we got some cricket to watch. The all-play-all home and away format is obviously the most fair and that has been the case since the two divisional structure was introduced (even in those slightly bizarre seasons that saw an eight-ten split between them). But, with just ten matches in the group stage, the notorious English spring weather lurks ready to throw a spanner into the wheel and derail the meritocracy.

Though it’s hardly an ideal solution (for such an answer does not exist), nine matches per round with every county getting the same week off, would be more equitable were the three groups to be retained in 2022. Four days per week of county cricket (with time off the field when waiting to bat, during inevitable rain delays and due to early finishes) just doesn’t sound that onerous for professional full-time athletes – especially if they’re not training to within an inch of their capacity on the three days per week without matches. And players are being rotated and rested anyway, so I’m not sure that we would notice a big difference in terms of quality.

Ball Six – No country for young men

Incredibly, Darren Stevens extraordinary innings for Kent against Glamorgan was not even the most remarkable sporting performance by an over-45 year-old last week. That said, even Phil Mickelson would have been impressed by the trajectory of Stevens’ 15 sixes in a knock of 190 that shattered plenty of records – as you would when making 160 out of a stand of 166 for the ninth wicket, Miguel Cummins cast in the Ridley Jacobs role.

Despite admirable declarations by captains Chris Cooke and Sam Billings, the weather bested even the mighty Wisden Cricketer of the Year 2021, a draw winning out as it did in all but one of this round of matches.

As a postscript (and quite a funny one) Stevens wasn’t satisfied with his batting pyrotechnics and, with ball in hand, won an LBW decision against Marnus Labuschagne, much to the Australian’s somewhat justifiable displeasure. Labuschagne is probably the most successful of a growing number of batsmen who have adopted Steven Smith’s technique of shuffling on to and, indeed, past his off stump by the time ball hits bat or pad. Many have wondered about the secret of Smith’s success – perhaps DRS might have something to do with it, as I suspect Labuschagne, with three out of five dismissals this season leg before, is discovering, finger by finger by finger.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | May 17, 2021

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 17 May 2021

Ball One – How to beat the opposition (players and weather)

Having been uncharacteristically out of sorts for a few weeks, Essex cranked up the mean machine and brushed aside Derbyshire as they leapfrogged to the top of Group 1. Having lost the first day to rain, the plan was to have a look, go hard for the bonus points that come with a total of 400 and then bowl the opposition out twice. Easier said than done of course.

It helps if you have players with the self-belief to execute so bold a plan and the team spirit required to know that it lies within their collective grasp. After Sir Alastair Cook and Nick Browne Esq. had raised three figures at a respectable three or so an over, skipper Tom Westley got together with Dan Lawrence to go at a run a ball as both raised their centuries, Lawrence’s “nearly” set of recent scores ending with the milestone he deserved.

Cue the second part of the plan, as Simon Harmer wheeled away for career-best figures of 9-80 which ensured that Westley had the power to enforce the follow-on and bowlers fresh enough to justify it. Derbyshire’s backbone was stiffened by the indignity and, second time round, they made Essex’s bowlers work harder, but it wasn’t enough. Harmer finished the three days with match figures of 70.5 – 18 – 202 – 12, but I’m not sure he’ll be rested any time soon.

Ball Two – Rushworth’s tears of joy an ornament of the game

Worcestershire have plotted a different route to success, their accumulation of bonus and draw points amounting to just six fewer than Essex’s total to date. But Joe Leach’s strategy did not last into the second half of the group stage, as a defeat now sits alongside their five draws in the table.

After the sides had traded blows over their first innings which left the match well balanced, centuries from Kiwi Will Young and local boy Jack Burnham backed up by a six blitz from the ever-resourceful Ned Eckersley, enabled Durham’s Scott Borthwick to set the visitors a notional 423 for the win or an hour and a day to bat out yet another stalemate. After Daryl Mitchell and Jake Libby put together an opening stand that suggested such a prospect was not fanciful, all ten wickets fell in a clatter for just 85 runs as Durham cruised home.

The match was a personal triumph for one of the most popular men on the county circuit, 34 year-old Chris Rushworth, whose match figures of 9-108 took him past Graham Onions on Durham’s all-time first class wickets list – enough to provoke emotional scenes in the middle. There are some who will tell you that English cricket has too many counties, that it needs to concentrate its talent to ensure a smoother progression from domestic to international matches, that it’s a historical relic no longer fit for purpose. They are saying that the game has no room for the likes of Chris Rushworth.

They are wrong.

Ball Three – Barker gets a shout out

After a couple of heavy defeats had punctured the early season optimism at Hampshire, they needed to get back to winning ways. With Middlesex’s four defeats from five, James Vince’s men must have travelled to Lord’s blessing the munificence of the fixtures computer – and so it proved.

With captain, Peter Handscomb, in dismal form, the brittleness of the home side’s batting meant that a couple of decent knocks from the visitors in tricky conditions might prove enough. That one came from Vince himself was no surprise – he often bats in that Gower-like space where everything looks easy until he gets out – but the other came from Keith Barker, whose 84 was comfortably the highest score in the match.

Barker is one of those all-rounders who is easy to leave out of an XI. His bustling left-arm swing doesn’t warrant a slot in the very best bowling units these days and his batting may be a very handy addition, though it’s probably not good enough to secure the number seven slot. But, six down with the first innings deficit 99, is exactly the situation that justifies his place. He did what he has done for years at Warwickshire and now Hampshire – he found a way to contribute. That said, having missed Hampshire’s first four matches of the season, don’t be too surprised if he misses the last four too – such is the lot of third seamer who bats at eight

Ball Four – What’s the points?

Gloucestershire were the main winners as England’s topsy-turvy Spring (with April more like May and May more like April) permitted just 68 overs at Taunton, enough time for Surrey’s international heavy top six to make the kind of “got in and got out” scores the merits of which one can only judge after the opposition has had a bat too.

This year’s additional points for the draw has excited some discussion and it’s certainly helped produce some fine finishes and congested tables, but is it fair? Equally moot is the allocation of bonus points, often said to smooth out the impact of the vagaries of the English weather, especially with the championship played in months even less reliable than high summer. Nine points each to Somerset and Surrey (comprising one bonus point and the eight for the draw) does not feel equitable when neither side had any chance of constructing a win.

Is there a better way to deal with such truncated matches? Perhaps if 150 overs are not bowled in a drawn match, it should be written off and the captains given the option either to take the bonus and draw points or the average haul of their last five championship matches. That would have given Somerset 18 points and Surrey 12 – for all its artifice, that does seem a fairer outcome than nine each in a ten match group stage that does not have all counties playing at the same time.

Ball Five – “Two Ollie Robinsons, there’s only two Ollie Robinsons”

One of those infuriating matches down at Hove saw Day Two finish with Kent two down in their second innings, leading by 27 – where’s your money? But, with only 22 overs possible on Day Three, neither side were going to risk those lovely draw points on a rain-affected Day Four and hands were shaken with Kent on 387-4d. 13 points to Sussex, 11 to Kent, the sides fifth and sixth respectively in their group.

Despite the match’s brevity, the Ollie Robinsons made 4, 25 and 85, took four catches behind the stumps and delivered figures of 3-29 and 1-53 – I hope they found time for a selfie. Expect a whimsical look back on players with the same name playing on opposing sides in next year’s Wisden.

But can he bat?

Ball Six – Pieces falling into place for Carlson

Lancashire caught a break with the weather too (something you usually only read when they relocate to Liverpool for a season) as closest rivals, Glamorgan and Yorkshire, could not wring a result out of the 170 overs possible at Sophia Gardens.

With Marnus Labuschagne (out for 10 and 0) finding conditions less to his liking than in previous visits to Wales, Joe Root and Kiran Carlson offered contrasting approaches to dealing with conditions that spread 24 wickets across nine bowlers.

Root, having struggled for rhythm after an exhausting winter, kept going and gritted out a five hour 99, which owed much to his captain and number ten, Steve Patterson, whose two hours at the crease for his 47 not out allowed Root to make more than half his runs.

Carlson has struggled for nothing in what is looking like a breakthrough season for the local lad. His 88 not out was scored at a strike rate of over 100 on a surface on which few could go at 50, and represented his fourth half century to go with his pair of tons in the home game against Sussex.

When Root turned 23 (as Carlson did yesterday) he had already been a Test match batsman for over a year, but players mature at different times and Carlson’s time may be coming – sure there’s a few ahead of him in the queue just now, but genuine talent usually finds a way.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | May 10, 2021

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 10 May 2021

What ees zis criquette of wheech you speak?

Ball One – From the Left Bank of the Seine to the Right Bank of the Trent

If sport really were drama, chins would be stroked, thoughts would be mused, and, from behind wreaths of Gauloises smoke, the French philosophers of the 1960s would have pronounced upon it. Somewhere, within their trademark obfuscation, sport’s key theme of jeopardy would have emerged, that enemy of big business, that friend of the playwright. The founding and sinking of football’s European Super League showed how much the owners of the clubs feared jeopardy’s uncertainty and how much the fans embraced it.

County cricket, with “big business” still as likely to mean a sponsor with three butchers’ shops and not just the one, still has a Hundred reasons to fear a closed shop (and, some might say, has protected a nice little cartel of 17 or 18 for decades) but it can do jeopardy like few others these days. Essex, the side that could never lose, travelled to Nottinghamshire, the side that could never win, and… lost.

Lost big too, after Luke Fletcher continued his fine form with 6-24, a sweet century from captain, Steve Mullaney, and four wickets from Notts Academy (yes, it does exist) product, Lyndon James. The champions went down by an innings and find themselves fifth in Group 1 at the halfway mark; Nottinghamshire sit pretty, top of the pile.

Ball Two – Yates graduates with flying colours

In the group’s other game, the Bears and the Pears fought each other and the weather and the weather won, a rain-affected draw keeping Warwickshire and Worcestershire a point apart in second and third places.

Rob Yates, Michael Burgess and Jack Haynes are unlikely to feature in franchise cricket (at least not this year), yet each has the kind of story that has intrigued fans of the county game since the days of Grace.

Yates is one of those clichés for whom the game finds, space even in 2021 – the student batsman. Some might think of Michael Atherton, fresh-faced with a freshly inscribed FEC on his locker door and some of PBH May, Jardine without the laser-like Larwood. Fellow centurion, Burgess, fetches up at Warwickshire after spells at Surrey, Leicestershire and Sussex, a keeper-batsman who turns 27 in July and might just have played the innings that ensures he’ll be playing county cricket at 28. Haynes fell just short of a maiden century for Worcestershire, but, at 20, has time on his side. Readers may recall his father, Gavin, a handy pro who dismissed a batsman who was a bit more than that, Brian Lara, in the Pears’ 1994 NatWest Trophy Final victory.

You can’t sell many crisps with little stories like that, but you can raise a smile on the face of a county cricket fan who knows that the present has deep roots in the past.

Ball Three – Pain again for Middlesex

Shorn of the IPL, the Sky Cricket channel, to its credit, broadcasted Middlesex’s match with Gloucestershire, sending its first team of commentators to join Middlesex’s own admirable Adam Collins in St John’s Wood, with pictures provided by Middlesex’s standard-setting, streaming service. Voices were more familiar with names like Joe Root and Jimmy Anderson (both of whom were playing county cricket last week) than Robbie White and Ryan Higgins, but they gave a good account of themselves.

Nasser, Athers, Wardy and Keysy weren’t afraid to draw on Collins’ encyclopedic knowledge of Middlesex’s recent travails and they had done their homework too. They kept the banter in check (a good rule for any commentator on any sport in any medium is never to talk about your golf handicap – and they didn’t) and also appreciated the skills on show, with the odd wry observation about the absence of DRS and some reflections on their own careers in the county game, keeping the tone relaxed and amusing. It was good stuff and there may well be more to come.

The ex-captains will have been impressed by England hopeful, James Bracey, at the wicket while 192 runs were added by Gloucestershire (not bad when Middlesex could muster only 210 and 152 in their two digs), but it was the performance of David Payne that really caught the eye. Harking back to days when England would pick a swinging specialist like Richard Ellison or Martin Bicknell or Neil Mallender for conditions, Payne’s left arm fast-mediums were pitched up and swung then seamed to deliver fully merited match figures on 11-87 and the points that sent his team 13 clear at the top of Group 2.

Ball Four – Overton in overdrive

At the halfway point of their season, it’s only Gloucestershire’s sustained form that keeps Somerset from wiping off all the effects of their points penalty carried over from last season. The cidermen recorded a fourth win from five matches, hammering strongly fancied Hampshire by ten wickets.

In a match which featured both Lewis Gregory and Keith Barker at number 10 (surely the most accomplished batsmen ever to have batted in such a lowly slot in the same championship match), Craig Overton was the standout performer.

Since his twin, Jamie, left for Surrey, Craig appears to have taken on the responsibility of scoring his runs and taking his wickets as well as his own, his knock of 74 and old-school second innings figures of 40-17-66-5 crucial in securing the win, as Hampshire resisted hard for the draw (Felix Organ setting records with his 7 off 108 balls). Overton has 32 wickets at 14 from his 207 overs this season, backing those up with 211 runs at 35 – keep the big man fit and out of England bubbles, and Somerset could be in the hunt yet again.

Ball Five – Saif may have made his place safe

Northamptonshire were the big movers in Group 3, closing on the White and Red Roses with a win over Sussex. In a good week for wobbling medium pace, Ben Sanderson and Gareth Berg had the stattos thumbing through Wisdens, as the Northants’ pair looked odds on to take five wickets each in both innings – but Tom Taylor took “Berg’s” wicket to close the books and secure the points.

The match had turned on a 198 runs partnership for Northants’ sixth wicket pair, Saif Zaib and captain, Adam Rossington. Though not yet 23, Zaib has been in and out of the Northamptonshire side seemingly for years, bowling a bit of slow left arm and biffing a few without ever really doing enough to justify selection on the basis of either skill. His crucial 135 in this match was a maiden century in any format of the game and might prove the springboard his career needs. That such hitherto marginal players might enjoy more opportunities when franchise cricket starts up will be an interesting subtext to the season.

Ball Six – Wood brings some Wagnerian thunder

The media were attracted to Old Trafford for the season’s debut of Jimmy Anderson, who started up that Rolls Royce run up and delivery and provided a masterclass in swing bowling in (shall we say) Lancastrian conditions. The snappers were particularly keen to catch the match-up with Glamorgan’s (oh, and Australia’s) Marnus Labuschagne, who has been posting some Steven Smith type numbers as well as Steven Smith type leaves since the 2019 Ashes. Marnus played himself in carefully and then was stitched up like a kipper, as Anderson diddled the young pretender with some classic away swing to take the edge. More please!

Though Anderson was not at full throttle, he was hardly jogging in, which made Saqib Mahmood and Luke Wood all the more impressive. Without the speedgun, it’s not easy to say definitively that they were quicker than England’s finest, but if Anderson was at his usual 85 or so mph, both looked to be touching 88mph at least.

Wood had moments of real hostility, his left arm round and over the wicket stuff flogging bounce out of the pitch and discomfiting batsmen. At times, he had some of the slightly comic menace of New Zealand’s Neil Wagner, who, for all of the raised eyebrows a few years ago when he started to hit the pitch well short of a length at fast-medium, has 219 Test wickets at 26 and has been instrumental in his country’s ascent to the World Test Championship Final. That Marnus is the only batsmen to fully embrace Smith’s ludicrous leaves is understandable, but why Wagner’s methods have few disciples is harder to fathom – Wood may be the first.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | May 4, 2021

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 3 May 2021

Ball One – Fletcher sets Notts’ fans aquiver

In Group One, just five points separate Warwickshire, Durham, Worcestershire, Nottinghamshire and Essex (with Derbyshire not out of the picture either) – whatever the second phase of this strangest of county championships brings us, the first phase has been a success beyond anyone’s expectations. Whether Warwickshire’s two wins and a draw to Worcestershire’s four draws, should produce more than a couple of points advantage is moot, but I suspect everyone is just willing to see how the format plays out for now.

Nottinghamshire and Durham were the group’s big movers, with the long-suffering Steve Mullaney able to celebrate a win for the first time since – well, everyone has pretty much forgotten when Notts last won. Ben Slater and Joe Clarke’s 163 run partnership for the third wicket set the match up and then Derbyshire failed to match that total in either of their innings in what turned into an easy win – for all of the anxiety displayed by Notts’ fans en route.

Whilst the recruitment policy at Trent Bridge has done little to endear Nottinghamshire to fans of other counties, few will begrudge Luke Fletcher the opportunity to raise a glass in victory. The burly seamer, who showed great courage and no little humour in recovering from a serious head injury in 2017, struck in his follow-through in an incident that prompted suggestions of bowlers wearing helmets at the time, took 7-60 in the match and is probably still telling people all about it now.

Ball Two – Fielders can keep their hands in their pockets

When Tim Bresnan was eighth man out for Warwickshire on the first morning with just 30 on the tins, Durham were always more likely to be thwarted by the weather than their opponents – and so it proved in a comfortable innings win. Seven of those early wickets required no assistance from the fielders, indeed “bowled” and “LBW” accounted for more than half of the 20 dismissals Durham affected.

Watching some of the live streams (and they vary in quality as much as an over from a 14 year-old leg-spinner) the impression forms that county bowlers are inclined to bowl a little straighter and fuller than we’ve become accustomed to in Test cricket, where the beehive graphic can show a mere handful of deliveries going on to hit the stumps in an entire session. No doubt some of that inaccuracy will be down to the greater pace of the bowlers hitting harder pitches and carrying the ball above stump height, but there’s a suspicion that captains in the county game are far less reluctant to bargain runs on the onside for a shot at hitting middle and off. Bowl county lines and lengths to Test batsmen, and you might see 110-1 at lunch – but you might see 80-4 too.

Ball Three – Lace tightens Gloucestershire grip on Group 2

In Group Two, Gloucestershire and Somerset lead the way with three wins out of four, leaving Hampshire’s international bowlers, the two London counties and poor old Leicestershire, in their wake.

With earlier wins over Hampshire and Somerset, Gloucestershire started as favourites at home to Leicestershire, but looked anything but when conceding a first innings deficit of 146, Sam Evans and Lewis Hill both posting three figures for the visitors. But Chris Dent’s man had already shown their mettle, the last four wickets adding 154 runs to establish that toehold.

After Ryan Higgins (the Darren Stevens of 2040) had bagged a fivefer, the hosts set off in pursuit of 348, a stiff, but gettable target and exactly the kind of denouement that first class cricket offers, perhaps uniquely in sport. Tom Lace and Ian Cockbain (with his grandfather, Bootle CC legend Ronnie, no doubt barking advice from the heavens) put together one of those partnerships that went from “No chance really” to “Let’s just have a look after tea” to “It could be on you know” to “Let’s finish this off” as 224 runs were added before Lace fell three short of a first century for Gloucestershire. But Cockbain was not to be denied and, with a quick 33 from that man Higgins, they were home for a famous win.

Ball Four – Smokin’ Roach

There was the prospect of guaranteed schadenfreude doing the rounds on cricket Twitter when Hampshire took guard at The Oval, both counties seen as big money clubs with big money players – whether that’s fair or not is an argument for another day.

What is beyond dispute is that Ollie Pope, last seen in England colours failing to come to terms with the demands of Indian spin, will learn plenty if he’s in partnership with Hashim Amla for 61 overs, as he was in making 131, with the serene South African cruising to 215 as Surrey piled up a second successive score of 550+ at home.

If that’s one argument for expensive overseas pros, Kemar Roach provided another with a magnificent exhibition of fast swing bowling, for once taking the outside edge rather than regularly beating it, a technician at his peak. His 8-40 gave Roach ten wickets in the match and rescued a Surrey season that was sliding through their fingers – and not for the first time in recent years.

Sussex’s players arrive at Hove

Ball Five – Sussex bowlers at home not at Hove?

Red Rose leads White Rose at the top of Group 3 after a couple of tremendous wins for the rivals (set to meet on 27 May – free on YouTube, but don’t tell the committees).

A quiz question first. What do the following have in common? Jofra Archer, Mitch Claydon, Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills, Ollie Robinson and Will Beer? The answer (apart from, “That’s a damned fine attack”) is that they all appear to be under contract to Sussex in 2021 but none were available for the match against Lancashire. That left the new ball in the hands of teenagers, Henry Crocombe and Jamie Atkins (both of whom gave good accounts of themselves) and spinning duties in the fingers of 20 year-old Irishman, Jack Carson. He has now taken two, three, six and seven wickets in his four matches this season, mixing off breaks with the kind of overspun deliveries that have brought Nathan Lyon and Ravichandran Ashwin over 800 Test scalps between them. This is real promise.

253 is no gimme as a fourth innings chase, but, with the experience gap yawning, Lancashire’s old heads were always likely to best Sussex’s young strivers and so it proved, Keaton Jennings anchoring with an undefeated 91, while Alex Davies blitzed 11 boundaries to, Sehwaggishly, knock the first 100 down and Josh Bohannon biffing a few of his own to supply the other innings such a mid-sized chase requires.

Ball Six – A match for the ages at Headingley

Yorkshire 206 and 247; Northamptonshire 234 and 218: Yorkshire won by one run.

Sometimes you feel you can just leave it there and let the numbers speak for themselves, the kind of scorecard that makes you think of Brian Close and Johnny Wardle, Colin Milburn and Sarfraz Nawaz.

If Yorkshire’s captain, the admirable Steve Patterson, hit the headlines with the wicket that secured the narrowest of wins, spare a thought for his victim, Wayne Parnell, whose two fivefers were responsible for getting his team into the position where he could bat two and a half hours right up until that fateful ball.

David Willey, who. like his father, Peter, represented Northamptonshire with distinction. must also have had an element of mixed feelings. Since his move up the M1, Willey hasn’t always got into the championship side, Yorkshire seemingly unsure of whether to deploy him as a batsman who bowls or a bowler who bats. Against his old county, returns of 12 and 41 not out from number nine and 3-43 and 3-39 may blur that question still further, but, at 31 with only 74 first class matches played, he should have red ball in hand for a few more this summer.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | April 26, 2021

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 26 April 2021

Ball One – I don’t like county cricket – I love it.

I’ve long contended that there are two things wrong with county cricket – the weather and the fact that not enough people know about it. This last round of fixtures has been a case in point, with the sun out and (I’ll say inevitably) great sport for the viewing.

And yet, how many of those stuck at home, unable or reluctant to head out just yet, without access to, or tiring of, Netflix and Amazon Prime, understandably turned off by football’s relentless festival of avarice, know that they can watch live, competitive, unpredictable sport played hard and fair by world class players mixing it with up-and-coming stars of tomorrow, solid pros and a few golden oldies, in picturesque historic venues – all piped in, for free, via Youtube?

Other sports wrestle for years with the problems that county cricket solves effortlessly – but maybe that’s an issue. The authorities simply don’t have enough to worry about, enough to warrant meetings with long agendas and steering groups and working parties and reports and rebrandings and well, all that stuff that business obsesses over when all you actually want from them is what they say they do and to answer the phone if something goes wrong. There are reasons for all this – there are always reasons – but if those with the power to do so sent a simple message to the people of Britain and beyond that county cricket is quite good, played Thursday to Sunday and costs you nothing, what a difference that would make.

Rob Yates pictured yesterday

Ball Two – Student passes examination

The Bears and the Pears lead the way in Group 1, with Warwickshire a handy eight points ahead of Worcestershire after Simon Harmer spun Essex to another victory. Stop. Rewind… after Simon Harmer went wicketless as the home side cruised to their 256 run target at Edgbaston.

Whether it’s this season’s extra points for the draw or pitches that can be trusted, I cannot say, but late order runs are already becoming a motif for 2021. After five of their more favoured batting buddies had seen their furniture rearranged, Olly Stone, Danny Briggs, Craig Miles and even Oliver Hannon-Dalby (a bowler – and batsman – with something of Glenn McGrath about him) added over 100 runs to restrict the deficit to double figures. Ball in hand, the quartet (with the pacers each picking up six wickets in the match) then handed a tough but gettable target to the batsmen to seek redemption.

Someone needed to stand up and beat the champions (and history – it’s been 21 matches since it last happened) and that man was a local boy, a Birmingham University undergraduate (like it’s still 1951 and we’re enjoying our Salad Days). Rob Yates – scores this season 40, 0, 2 and 4 – stared down the 22 yards and saw Jamie Porter and Sam Cook, with Peter Siddle prowling in the outfield and Simon Harmer flexing his fingers. He made almost half the required runs off his own bat and, with fewer than ten overs to spare, he had vanquished those fearsome foes and was receiving the congratulations of Sir Alastair Cook, who knows a bit about five hour centuries when the team needs them.

Ball Three – Goodman a sure thing at the death

Gloucestershire, more a team of solid pros than the starrier Hampshire, hung on to the leaders at the top of Group 2 after a sensational draw (yes, American readers, there are such things) at The Rose Bowl.

James Vince with half an hour and a day left, had a lead of 150 runs, the bare minimum for enforcing the follow-on. His six bowlers had sent down 132 overs, but they had been shared fairly evenly and, with 20 wickets the key to any victory, I’m sure bits were being champed at. In such circumstances, I’d advise a captain to look at his attack and throw the match forward two sessions or so – would he back them to take five wickets from that point?

Kyle Abbott and Mohammad Abbas brought almost 1000 FC wickets to the crease, Brad Wheal kept on turning, and Liam Dawson and Mason Crane tweaking, but no Gloucestershire batsman in the top eight gave it away. Despite that fine example of exactly why Joe Root led the call for additional points for the draw (and I’m being swayed towards its utility), there was still more than an hour to play and an anemic lead of 11 in hand when last pair, Josh Shaw and Dominic Goodman joined forces. Neither had crossed 50 outside club or junior cricket, but guts counts for a lot in such circumstances, and, 73 minutes later, Gloucestershire had their draw.

Ball Four – Lamb not to the slaughter

Bowlers were batting at Canterbury too, but in rather different circumstances.

After a couple of sessions of hard graft on a pitch that offered enough movement to Kent’s seamers, Lancashire were six down and mentally preparing for a possible late dart in day one’s slanting sunlight. Not so – the shadows were beginning to lengthen on day two before they swapped bat for ball as Luke Wood and Danny Lamb, probably only playing because Jimmy Anderson and Saqib Mahmood were rested, wrote themselves into the record books with a stand of 187 for the eighth wicket.

Wood made 119 from Number Eight, but Danny Lamb’s 125 was the highest score from Number Nine in Lancashire’s history, a feat of which I’m sure he’s justifiably proud. He’s too young to know, but some pretty useful batsman have occupied that slot down the years – off the top of my head, I’m thinking Jack Simmons, David Hughes, Glen Chapple, Ian “Bully” Austin, maybe even Wasim Akram.

There’s always someone to intervene at such moments to tell you that it’s a results business (and it is), so it was critical that Lancashire drive home the advantage with a victory. After a pretty poor effort first time round from the hosts, Kent’s captain, Daniel Bell-Drummond and his opening partner, Jordan Cox, led the way resisting for longer than the whole team in the second dig. But 52 – 8 – 126 – 7 is an outstanding return in a second innings – take a bow, and the points to go top of Group 3, Matt Parkinson.

Ball Five – England Watch (Batsman)

It couldn’t be could it? Most young batsmen endure a slump in form and come back stronger, but we forget those who don’t, until you’re thumbing through an old Wisden, find a name you had forgotten and whisper to yourself “Ah, he was a player”. You try not to say “Ah, he could have been a player”, but sometimes, you just can’t help it.

He may not be a baby any longer, but the Boycott tag still fits after he out-Boycotted Sir Geoffrey with a record 635 balls faced in a Championship match, twin centuries in the bag. Sure there’s a few in the queue ahead of him and there’s some with better arguments this year alone, but, five years on, could this be the season?

If Haseeb Hameed walks out to open for England in The Ashes, having fought his way back into the side five years on, well Don Bradman may not have had a tear in his eye at The Oval in 1948, but we sure will.

Ball Six – England Watch (Bowler)

Leicestershire may not be the strongest opponents, especially for a big fast bowler who has already played Test cricket, but wickets are wickets and a win is a win. Craig Overton’s match figures of 35.4 – 19 – 64 – 8 delivered the points to Somerset, but also backed up a highly successful 2020 season with another strong performance leading the attack.

Much depends on the balance of England’s XI, the workload of Ben Stokes, the managed swansongs of Anderson and Stuart Broad and the now enhanced position of Chris Silverwood, but Overton has built a case for inclusion in the phalanx of seamers England will surely need to get through the punishing schedule of cricket that the next 12 months will bring.

And I hope it’s not too parochial (pace Ball One) to hope that performances with a red ball, in England, free to view, with three slips and a gully and batsmen looking to defend as well as attack, might just outweigh lucrative, though not particularly relevant, bowling in the IPL, when Test caps are handed out.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | April 19, 2021

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 19 April 2021

Ball One – Simon harms yer

When Essex were 96 all out just after lunch on the first afternoon, you wouldn’t have put money on them heading Group One today. When Essex conceded a first innings lead of 163, you wouldn’t have put money on them heading Group One today. When Essex had three wickets in hand and a lead of 45, you wouldn’t have put money on them heading Group One today.

Essex head Group One today after Simon Harmer’s 10 wickets got them over the line against a Durham side that allowed Ben Allison, playing only his third Championship match, to eek out 53 runs for the ninth wicket with Sam Cook, stretched over a couple of hours. Once Cook and Jamie Porter had bagged an opener each for nothing and Harmer had the ball in his hand, the script was written. Somehow we’re still surprised.

Ball Two – Bresnan and Briggs best Broad

Warwickshire share top spot in the group after Notts did a reverse-Essex (yet again) and lost a match from a winning position. With the visitors still 149 short and Dom Sibley hors de combat, Trent Bridge looked likely to see home team celebrations for the first time in years. But Notts did the Notts thing, and lost.

That said, watching the stream of Stuart Broad bowling leg-cutters to an often baffled and grinning Tim Bresnan in the deep slanting sunlight of the fourth evening of the match with only the draw ruled out – well, it was a rare pleasure. When the winning runs were secured via leg byes, the Notts players sank to their knees, while Bresnan and Danny Briggs stood a little sheepishly in the middle. partly because they knew they’d burgled one and partly because they felt the pain of their opponents.

Surely this is a saleable commodity to sponsors because who wouldn’t want to be associated with that wondrous hour of television?

Ball Three – Double Dutchy

Hampshire marmalised Middlesex to lead Group Two after Mohammad Abbas dismissed batsmen seemingly at will, the ball going hither and thither at a pace cruelly calibrated to be just slow enough to kiss the outside edge of the bat or to pass it on the inside en route to the pads. Match figures of 31 – 16 – 39 – 9 did not flatter the Sialkot seamer with the sleight of hand on the kind of pitch on which his own team piled up over 600 runs for the loss of 14 wickets.

It was also a fine match for made In Melbourne USMNT player and British passport holder, Ian Holland, who backed up 64 and 146* opening with three handy wickets having observed Abbas’s methods. Middlesex have contrived to post just nine points, half the next lowest tally in the country and have the London derby up next at Lord’s. They might be glad that the members won’t be lining the walk through the Long Room.

Ball Four – Bracey’s pair of innings deliver the win

Gloucestershire are nicely tucked in a couple of points behind Hampshire after a surprise (is that allowed Glaws fans?) victory over West Country rivals, Somerset.

After three runs separated first innings scores, that most resourceful of cricketers, Ryan Higgins, led the bowling effort with four wickets, but all five in the unit chipped in with an er… out. With only three of the home batsmen posting double figures, a target of 153 looked in the “tricky” category, but James Bracey, making up for lost time spent not playing for England, added 83* to his first innings 118 (from Number 3 after keeping wicket) and the points went to Bristol. With Sibley and Ben Stokes likely to vacate their spots in the England order, they’re timely runs indeed.

Ball Five – Robinson checkmates Carlson

Sussex lead a tight echelon at the top of Group Three after Glamorgan made them fight hard for the win points at Sophia Gardens.

Another one of England’s unused bubble men led the way, Ollie Robinson (Sussex’s Ollie Robinson, not Kent’s Ollie Robinson) made an early pitch for Wisden 2022 inclusion with a second innings haul of 9-78, as the hosts kept the visitors in the field for 128 overs. But Aaron Thomasen steadied the ship with his second half century of the match and Sussex cruised home, with eight wickets in hand.

A couple of years ago, this column identified Glamorgan’s Kiran Carlson as one to watch, his lightning fast hands cracking the ball all round The Oval like the second coming of AB de Villers. Things haven’t gone so well since (they seldom do for young cricketers – unless they’re AB de Villiers) but Carlson, still only 22, made 127* and 132 in the match, batting 137 overs for once out. It could be a big summer for Carlson and, if it is, the Glamorgan highlights page will be notching up the hits.

Matt Parkinson yesterday

Ball Six – A tale of two spinners

Simon Kerrigan had known the best of times and the worst of times as a left arm spinner. A hero of Lancashire’s Championship team in 2011, he was knocked out of the attack in his one Test in 2013 and knocked out of his stride a year or two later. After a bit of coaching and a bit of club cricket as a batsman, a loan to Northamptonshire led to a contract and, last week, a return to Old Trafford – this time not wearing the red rose. He bowled beautifully and gladdened the hearts of men and women from Ormskirk to Oswaldtwistle.

Matt Parkinson, yet another England bubbler, had been inexplicably left out of Lanky’s first match, but wasted no time in drifting, dipping and ripping his leg-breaks, trending on Twitter as far as Australia, where Shane Warne noticed similarities – and he knows about hitting the top of off stump in Manchester. See what you think.

Despite Parky even bamboozling the umpire to snare Saif Zaib, and Saqib Mahmood bowling very fast indeed, Northamptonshire made the home side work long into the last session of the match before they secured the points to send them second in Group Three.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | April 12, 2021

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 12 April 2021

What really matters

Ball One – Bartlett pairs with Gregory for Somerset victory

Somerset started the season by taking a step closer to their traditional Autumnal heartbreak with a wonderfully resistant win over Middlesex. After Sam Robson’s opening day 165, Middlesex’s bowlers looked like earning double helpings of triple sweaters until Marchant de Lange biffed a few while Jack Leach wiped the ice off his glasses at the other end to save the follow-on. The home side were still favourites after Josh Davey and Leach won a flurry of second innings LBW decisions to leave Somerset chasing 285. Captain, Tom Abell, got his team over half way, but it was the unbroken seventh wicket stand of 98 between George Bartlett and Lewis Gregory that got them over the line.

Gregory didn’t need his first innings fivefer to justify his place in the bowling unit, but his performances at eight may be crucial in more than just this match. Usually in partnership with the last recognised batsman, an Eight must decide whether to dig in and rotate the strike or lead the counterattack as kind of auxiliary Seven. Gregory chose the latter, ten fours peppering his 62 while Bartlett, 23 last month, steered the ship to port.

Ball Two – Crane flying through an English spinner’s development

As in the schlocky 80s comedy, there were three daddies at Leicester where James Vince (231), Liam Dawson (152*) and Tom Alsop (119) brought the pain to Leicestershire, piling up 612-5 in 120 overs before the home side could gather round the radiators and warm bodies and souls. To their credit, Leicestershire made Hampshire work very hard for their somewhat inevitable win, resisting for 77 overs in the first dig and 96 following on.

Mason Crane – having already gone through the “Could this be the one for England?”, the “No it isn’t” and the “Is he even good enough for his county” stages of an English spin bowler’s career – is now entering the “Reliable at this level actually” phase, his match figures of 44 – 8 – 151 – 6 a strong foundation for a big season to come for the oldest 24 year-old in the game.

Ball Three – Surrey set off on the wrong foot

Gloucestershire were the other victors in the first round of matches, brushing aside a Surrey XI shorn of the Currans, but still boasting six international players in a manner that is growing too familiar for the well-resourced South Londoners.

With Ben Foakes’ 133 instrumental in setting a tricky but gettable target of 228, Surrey’s bowlers had no answer to Gloucestershire’s captain, Chris Dent, and all-rounder Graeme van Buuren as they cruised to the win at better than six an over. Rory Burns used five bowlers, but they could manage only 12 wickets in the match. Moreover, all five bowled at least one no ball as 16 were sent down at a rate of one every eight overs, which made me wonder how the pre-season work (by which the county sets great store) had grooved bowlers’ actions if they couldn’t be sure where their feet were landing.

Ball Four – England watch

Defending champions, Essex, could not do what they have done so often in recent years – convert an advantage into a win. With no restriction on first innings duration, Tom Westley chose to bat into the 158th over, which felt too long to me, but he had spent nearly nine hours in the middle compiling 213, so he was hardly guessing about the state of the pitch.

He had banked on two elements of the game working in his favour – his own attack’s proven ability to bag 20 wickets and the mental challenge of batting the best part of seven sessions for a draw. With Worcestershire 43-4 at the end of the second day, his assumptions looked likely to bear fruit.

Jake Libby had other thoughts and bedded in to carry his bat for over 11 hours, eventually finding a partner in all-rounder, Ed Barnard, whose maiden century turned his ratio of batting to bowling averages positive and secured the additional points now available for the draw.

Joe Root was pleased to see that adjustment to the County Championship, as it would encourage batsmen to fight for every run and develop the concentration Test match play requires. After a stop-start career, Libby had an excellent 2020 and has started 2021 with a backs-to-the-wall epic. With England’s packed schedule and a top three lacking consistency, Libby may soon get a chance to offer Root the luxury of a cup of tea between the toss and walking out to the middle.

Ball Five – Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

I am loathe to criticise anyone involved in cricket at any level after the last 12 months they have endured and the splendid entertainment offered to us in times when we needed it more than ever. But… (and you could see that coming couldn’t you?)

Can you find the reason why Somerset’s 19 points for their win translates to 11 points in the Group 2 table? I know it’s a penalty carried over from last season, but an * and a line of explanation would help. Indeed, aside from learning that there are now eight points for the draw, there’s no comprehensive statement regarding points allocations, never mind penalties for slow over rates etc, that I could find on any website. At the BBC, the County Championship appears to be contested by just six clubs, which may please some well up in cricket’s hierarchy – until they learn that Derbyshire are amongst them. On Groups Two and Three, the national broadcaster’s website appears as silent as it was for much of Friday afternoon.

Maybe I’m asking a bit too much here, but the excellent Youtube streams provided by counties are attracting very decent numbers, with pin sharp HD images from multiple cameras, onscreen real time information graphics and swift replays, supported by a social media effort that also brings the game to its audience. So why do we have the BBC local radio feed for audio? Not only is it too wordy for TV (perfectly reasonably so given its primary purpose), but it can be a little parochial too – is Simon Harmer really vying with Rashid Khan to be the best spinner in world cricket? Even in these straitened times, it shouldn’t be beyond the scope of counties to employ a couple of commentators to ensure the audio lives up to the pictures, especially when there often appears to be more people podcasting than not podcasting.

Ball Six – Disgrace Road?

I’m going to leave the morality to commenters below the line and focus on a relatively narrow point raised by the rather anodyne scorebook entry “Hassan Azad stumped McManus bowled Dawson 18”. You can see what happened for yourself here, as the appeal “for” a catch was unexpectedly upheld at square leg, after Lewis McManus, ball in his right glove, had whipped off a bail with his left.

Surely it should not have been beyond the ken of two captains (Hampshire’s James Vince and Leicestershire’s Colin Ackermann), two umpires, a match referee and (if necessary) two scorers to work out an equitable solution for all parties? Mistakes do happen and ask any motorcyclist about how concentration dips when you’re cold and they’ll have a story or two. And, for those who say that a recall isn’t possible under the laws once the next ball has been bowled. I pose a jurisprudential question – are the laws there to facilitate the game or is the game there to exemplify the laws. If you subscribe to the former (as this writer does) Azad should have resumed his innings with an * in the scorebook, a short explanatory note and Hampshire’s men looking rather bigger than they do today.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | March 10, 2021

Joey Benjamin – 2 February 1961 – 8 March 2021

Unlike his near-contemporary namesakes, Winston and Kenny, the unrelated Antiguans, Joey Benjamin was not quick nor would he have fitted into the West Indian mean machine still terrorising batsmen all over the world. Somehow the St Kitts born outswing merchant had the demeanour of someone pleased to be playing cricket, pleased to be given choice of ends, pleased with the recognition that came late in his career. His sole England cap came in a match in which another bowler who gave every impression of enjoying his time with ball in hand wrote himself into the record books with an enduring quote and 9-57.

Benjamin’s first innings 4-47 was forgotten in the wake of Devon Malcolm’s “You Guys Are History” whirlwind of South African wickets, but sending back Hansie Cronje, Kepler Wessels, Dave Richardson and Craig Matthews was enough to catch the eye of even the most myopic of 90s selection panels and, at 33, Joey was off on an Ashes Tour. A bout of chickenpox put him out of the first Test and the selectors, ever capricious, never awarded him a second cap, though he did play a couple of ODIs.

It may have been a blessing in disguise, as Michael Slater set the tone for the series smashing Phil DeFreitas’s first ball to the point boundary, three big Australian wins retaining The Ashes, as England cycled through six seamers in the five matches. Because, for all of his Caribbean heritage, Benjamin always looked like what he was – a fine bowler with plenty of craft picked up in Midlands league cricket, who lacked the bounce required for the Australia’s hard pitches and swing unfriendly conditions. In other words, a classic English fast-medium pacer.

He had honed those league skills filling in at Warwickshire but really came to the fore at The Oval, where, already into his 30s, he found friends in the dressing room and success in the middle, Eight consistent summers brought him 459 wickets at about 30, the kind of numbers that nails down a place in the XI without necessarily winning trophies. He left the county in 1999 just as Adam Hollioake was to inject the swagger that did bring trophies.

Gone at just 60 while still working at Reigate Grammar School, Joey Benjamin’s life in cricket was one perhaps only possible in England – a county pro who got lucky with a shot at the big time, then unlucky in not getting a second go, but made a living on the domestic circuit and found the camaraderie every ex-sportsperson needs by staying close to the club for whom he played. To those of us looking on from outside the rope, he gave everything swinging the ball or swinging the bat, and we respected him for that.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | March 8, 2021

India vs England 2021 – The Report Cards

These Report Cards come with the proviso that “bubble cricket” presents challenges to players and management and that each will be affected as an individual. Assessment and grading is done on the performances alone, but, in the wider context, significant mitigation due to these unique circumstances must also be acknowledged. 

I don’t care how it plays, it looks beautiful

Joe Root (368 runs at 46; six wickets at 24; three catches) – Carried his sensational form from Sri Lanka to Chennai to deliver a win for the ages, sweeping a double century to set up the series. Subsequently, he failed to make more than 33, as India’s spinners’ patience preyed on his fatigue. Despite having much more than a popgun attack, he couldn’t stop Rohit Sharma’s series-changing boundary barrage in the second Test, nor Ravichandran Ashwin’s nails-into-coffin century in the second dig. Picked the wrong team for both matches he needed to win, but remains a personable character who was as amazed as anyone with his five-fer. Maybe that charisma, his record of victories and his status as an all-time great batsman protects him from more forthright criticism after defeats in which England were ultimately barely competitive despite gaining footholds in all three Tests. Grade B- 

Dominic Sibley (134 runs at 17; one catch) – This resourceful cricketer appeared to have done his thing with 103 runs chiselled out of the first Test’s red earth. Only 31 more were added to the ledger as technical deficiencies, crumbling confidence and bad luck did for him. Grade C 

Rory Burns (58 runs at 15; three catches) – The two ducks are an occupational hazard for an opening bat, but to have twice batted for an hour and got out must have infuriated him and, ultimately cost him his place. Still has plenty of heart, but with so few straight lines in his set up and defensive play, he looks vulnerable to lateral movement, spin, seam or swing. Grade C- 

Zak Crawley (67 runs at 17; two catches) – In a magnificent half century, he looked like the new Barry Richards, fluent drives, fierce pulls and cuts, the bowler given no margin for error by his height and decisive footwork. But once Axar Patel and Ashwin skidded the ball on to him, an almost imperceptible but fatal hesitation undid him. Grade B-

Dan Lawrence (149 runs at 25; 0 wicket for seven runs) – Like the new kid in a Sunday XI, he batted wherever he could get a game and (backhanded compliment klaxon) fitted into this England team well. He improved as the challenge became tougher by sticking to a well-conceived plan to play the turning ball – the old-fashioned one of going fully forward or fully back. Grade B-

Jonny Bairstow (28 runs at 7) – It took a lot more time to get home and back after the Sri Lankan leg of the winter than it took to get to the crease and back in India, the last of an horrendous portfolio of dismissals a first baller glanced straight into the hands of leg slip. There’s mitigation of course, but one wonders what the phalanx of coaches and support staff were doing with him that led to so calamitous a collapse in the basics of batsmanship. Grade D-  

Ben Stokes (203 runs at 25; five wickets at 31; five catches) – After an unexpected day off to start the series, came in and biffed a good position into a very good position with all the bristling aggression with which we have become familiar. Finished the series with a mind-over-matter gig as an opening bowler, in which all his skills and hostility with the ball were showcased. But he couldn’t find that game-changing spell nor that signature innings, too often beaten by relatively innocuous deliveries when looking as good as any Englishman at the crease. Grade B-  

Ollie Pope (153 runs at 19; five catches) – He will be a better batsman for a chastening experience in which he was made to look like a rabbit in the headlights or a cat on a hot tin roof, stuck mesmerised as the delivery dipped in flight or running at the ball in hope as much as expectation of a clean connection. Grade C- 

Jos Buttler (54 runs at 27; five catches) – Twice arrived at the crease with England very comfortable, nevertheless he batted solidly rather than spectacularly. Tidy behind the stumps, but, like his Indian counterpart, was shown to be a batsman first, wicketkeeper second, by Ben Foakes’ next level glove work. Grade B-

Ben Foakes (78 runs at 16; four catches and three stumping) – On either side of the popping crease, he watched the ball all the way and used a firm base and still head to make good on the descriptor “wicketkeeper-batsman”. But his scoring options were limited, which is not what you want batting with a weak tail, and mistakes crept into his keeping too as India crushed England’s spirit. Grade B-  

Moeen Ali – (49 runs at 25; eight wickets at 28; one catch) – A late start and early finish for Moeen’s winter but burned brightly when he got his chance, especially with a blaze of (alas inconsequential) sixes as England slumped to defeat in Chennai. Dismissed India’s captain and vice-captain twice in his one Test and bowled his by now familiar mix of four balls and wicket-taking deliveries with too few stock balls in-between. For all his watchability, the question remains: are you going to win many matches on spin-friendly pitches with a frontliner conceding 226 runs at close to four an over? Grade C

Dom Bess (64 runs at 16; five wickets at 39) – He was treated with little sympathy on and off the field when he appeared to be selected and then bowled reluctantly by a captain who clearly wanted to bolster his fragile confidence but just couldn’t in the cauldron of Test cricket. Spinners need to bounce back from adversity – his England and Somerset teammate can tell him that – but Bess has hard work to do at his new county, Yorkshire, where one hopes he will get enough cricket to groove an action and release that is too unreliable as things stand now. Grade D

Jofra Archer (16 runs at 4; four wickets at 31) – His speed through the air and ability to add 5mph to his stock delivery with no change in run up nor action saw him knock over Shubman Gill twice and Rohit Sharma once in the three innings in which he bowled. His once rated batting appears to have disintegrated. Grade B- 

Jack Leach (48 runs at 8; 18 wickets at 29; one catch) – Delivered 95 more overs than any other England bowler and did not wilt in the heat nor under a premeditated assault from Rishabh Pant, who would have hit lesser men out of the attack. If he lacks a little mystery and skiddy pace off the surface, he makes up for it with consistency and spirit. If he had the luxury of bowling in tandem with a right arm version of himself, his figures would have been more impressive. Grade A-   

Stuart Broad (9 runs at 5; 0 wicket for 78 runs) – He was shown the respect his status in the game demands by India’s batsmen but carried little threat on surfaces that lacked the seam movement and carry that his bowling needs. Grade C

Ollie Stone (one run at one; four wickets at 17; one catch) – Hit the crease hard and bowled very fast to wring four wickets from a surface that gave him little support. Grade B

Jimmy Anderson (12 runs at 4; eight wickets at 16; one catch) – A master bowler in all conditions, he gave little to hit and India’s batsmen were not inclined to force the issue. He swung the ball and worked over batsmen constructing overs and spells in the manner of a Warne or Ashwin. Almost half his overs were maidens – cricket from a bygone age. Grade A-

Rohit Sharma (345 runs at 58; no wicket for seven runs; five catches) – After the shock defeat in the first Test and losing his opening partner without a run on the board, he creamed the bowling to all parts of Chennai to take lunch on 80 not out, en route to a series shifting knock of 161 that deserves to be considered one of the greatest this century. He also made contributions in the other two victories and, at times, looked like he was batting on a wholly different strip. Grade A

Shubman Gill (119 runs at 20; two catches) – The talent is undeniable, but a technique that is more suited to freeing the arms and driving the ball on the up will be found out with Test lines and lengths supported by two slips and a gully. Grade C

Cheteshwar Pujara (133 runs at 22; three catches) – Understandably a little jaded after his herculean efforts in Australia, his signature concentration was a little off and England had the tools to exploit it. Grade C-

Virat Kohli (172 runs at 29; four catches) – Rusty after paternity leave, the mojo was lacking in the first Test wake-up call. Thereafter, he had pitches more to his liking and Kohli-Cam was back to showing the familiar whoops of celebration, as events bent to his will with his bowlers (new man, Axar, handled particularly well) delivering just what he wanted. His batting never got going – but it wasn’t needed. Grade B

Ajinkya Rahane (112 runs at 19; eight catches) – His catching was more influential than his batting, but his one innings of substance ensured that Rohit’s masterpiece was not wasted. Probably has enough credit in the bank for continued selection, but will need runs soon if he is to push on to 100 caps. Grade C+ 

Rishabh Pant (270 runs at 54; eight catches and five stumping) – The new superstar of Indian cricket, he showed that his extraordinary batting in Australia was no flash in the pan, as he produced two innings of extraordinary confidence and invention. His strike rate of 84 was a full 30 runs ahead of Joe Root, who was no slouch, and his boundary count (32 fours and 10 sixes)  was, like his balance of attack and defence, Gilchristian. His keeping improved in leaps and bounds for good measure. Grade A 

Washington Sundar (181 runs at 91; two wickets at 65) – Plenty of Indian fans told us that though he may have been selected as a back-up spinner down the order, he was a serious batsman and so it proved. Twice missed out on deserved centuries and he may find that a fit again Ravindra Jadeja and Axar – no mean batsman himself – are in competition with him for one place over the next couple of years, but talent has a way of breaking through. That said, don’t be too surprised to see him in Rahane’s slot at number five if his batting continues to develop. Grade B+   

Ravichandran Ashwin (189 runs at 32; 32 wickets at 15; two catches) – Quickly worked out that he needed few of his box of tricks beyond the hard spun drifter and turner and the hard spun dipper and skidder to bewitch England’s batsmen into crease-bound impotence or crazy charges. Knowing he was unlikely to add to the tattoo of bruises left by Patrick Cummins and Josh Hazlewood on Chennai’s black soil pitch, he came in to play and few shots and kept going all the way to a century. Grade A+ 

Kuldeep Yadav (Three runs at 2; two wickets at 21) – Should have played in the first Test when a third spinner was needed, but played in the second, when he wasn’t. Grade C

Axar Patel (55 runs at 14; 27 wickets at 11; one catch) – His debut series – really? Were India allowed to create a cyborg bowler perfectly manufactured to exploit Indian conditions and English techniques, a robot Axar is what you would get. His left-arm pacy deliveries that spun or hurried on from a high release point retaining an immaculate line and length, proving much too much for batsmen who had seen little of its kind before – and didn’t hang around long enough to see much of it this time either. Four five-fers in three Tests did not flatter him, as it was only Ashwin’s excellence at the other end that prevented him bagging plenty more. Grade A+  

Ishant Sharma (26 runs at seven; six wickets at 27; one catch) – Bowled with Andersonian skill to swing the ball, but he was only ever going to be a warm-up act for the A-men at the top of the bill. Grade B 

Mohammed Siraj (20 runs at 10; three wickets at 23; one catch) – The figures belie his hostile and street-smart pace bowling which yielded few boundary balls and shook up batsmen looking for a bit of respite from trial by turn. It will be interesting to see him in England come August in conditions likely to favour his brand of all-action aggression. Grade B

Jasprit Bumrah (Five runs at two; four wickets at 32; one catch) – After as disciplined and effective a display as one can expect in the series’ first innings with England piling up 578, he came back after injury for the third Test in which he was surplus to requirements. Grade B-

Shahbaz Nadeem (0 runs at 0; four wickets at 58) – Recalled 16 months after his debut Test, he looked out of his depth and will be fortunate to get another go given the progress of Axar and Washington. Grade C-

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | December 10, 2020

Three Memories of Cricket in 2020

With no crowd to congratulate him, every Pakistan player did the decent thing – to their credit.

First Test England vs West Indies – Shannon Gabriel to Zak Crawley

It had been an emotional few days.

Early July, deep in lockdown, we didn’t know whether we’d see any cricket at all, we didn’t know when we would be back at grounds, we didn’t even know when we would just get outside properly in the open air.

Then, in the middle of Sky’s usual speculation about team selection and pitch conditions, commentators, Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent, invited us into a different kind of isolation, their lifelong prison, the prison of racism, with a searing 15 minutes of television. I can add nothing to their words except to say that they lose none of their power on repeated viewings – so click now.

We took a deep breath and, shaken up, bore in mind the words of the Italian football manager, Arrigo Sacchi, who described his sport as “the most important of the unimportant things in life” and settled in for some Test cricket.

To the immense credit of the players, the ECB, CWI, the broadcasters and everyone at the Ageas Bowl, Test cricket is exactly what we got, fought hard and fair with quarter neither asked nor given. Without a crowd, it sounded and looked different, but nobody could doubt for a second that it mattered.

Greater even than the joy of your side winning is that inward glow of pleasure that suffuses your whole being when a new talent emerges, one ready to write Test cricket’s future history, a torch illuminating a path that had never looked darker.

Shannon Gabriel was bowling fast and had a new ball in hand. He hit a length just outside off stump and Zak Crawley stood tall to punch it with a vertical bat through the covers. I thought of Barry Richards, who had played so many matches in the same county if not the same ground, or, more prosaically perhaps, of Michael Atherton, but he played the shot ever so slightly hunched – stiff in the back as always. Maybe VVS Laxman too, though he wouldn’t have hit it as hard, or Inzamam-ul-Haq with his economy of movement. Here was a player indeed.

Crawley scored just ten more runs as England collapsed, the West Indies going on to a famous win and Zak was to find himself in and out of the XI, as England wondered whether it was too soon for him to become a fixture in the top order.

Against Pakistan, in the final Test of the summer, he provided 267 answers.

The Bob Willis Trophy

I read a tweet that praised “The Bob” and suggested its structure might act as a template for the 2021 County Championship because “it took up less time.” For many of us, we’d be happy to see the 2021 County Championship take up pretty much every day from mid-April to mid-September, but I guess we might find some room for the 50 overs knockout matches and the T20 crowdpleasers under lights.

Somehow, the ECB not only got the show on the road (and, again, gratitude and kudos to everyone involved), but what a fine show it was, innovative, competitive and starring a marvellous cast of old favourites and new faces. The streams, though variable in quality, were a lockdown lifeline and the daily reports (please take note anyone with the power to preserve this ancient craft next summer) were a delight to read, an oasis of calm in a summer in which time was out of joint.

In the final, in the cold and the wind, Alastair Cook, Knight of the Realm, batted on and on to win the first ever Bob for his beloved Essex. County cricket mattered to a man who has achieved pretty much everything Test cricket has to offer – and it matters to quiet, faceless millions too, from the one who turns up with his dog in April, to those who just like to catch the scores in the paper or on the radio from time to time.

In 2021, the sporting calendar will be packed like a White House swearing-in of a Supreme Court judge. It might be easy (and convenient for some) if the County Championship were to slide into the shadows, but mark these words – ground, once ceded, will never be recovered. The Summer Game must hold its own and we should all do our bit.

New Zealand vs West Indies First Test 

It wasn’t much of a match, New Zealand far too good for a ramshackle West Indies possibly feeling the pace of their schedules in this year like no other. But that didn’t matter.

Everything about the match stood in contrast to the recent overloads of T20 cricket with its garish colour pallet, its gruesome heaves to leg, its gargantuan stadiums. That format has its place and it can make for a fun evening out, but how many times can one cope with that sensory assault, as 57 is chased down off the last four overs yet again, without tapping out?

Hamilton’s Seddon Park was the antidote I needed. Grassy banks, glorious sunshine and a palpably human scale provided the environment for Kemar Roach, his father having died on the eve of the match, to bowl his heart out, fortune, good or bad, met with the same smile. Kane Williamson played an epic Test innings, leaving when he should, defending or missing the good ones, hitting the bad ones, his heart seemingly bouncing off a rev limiter set to 50, a master craftsman at the top of his game. Neil Wagner, having had a tutorial from Trent Boult on the boundary the previous day, swung the ball beautifully as, joined by Tim Southee and the impressive newcomer, Kyle Jamieson, the Kiwis got home with an innings to spare, only Jermaine Blackwood and Alzarri Joseph resisting.

Watching the live stream made available on New Zealand Cricket’s Youtube channel, a couple of voices I had not heard before perfectly captured Test cricket’s commentary’s two most important elements.

Jeetan Patel cooly and clearly explained the technical side of what the players were trying to do and why, and went on to suggest what they might try next. The game is opaque (and, gloriously, the more you watch it, the more opaque it becomes) but his insights were most welcome and beautifully delivered.

Grant Elliott set the tone with as a wonderfully relaxed presence, describing the plays but asking questions of his co-commentators with a voice so soft that it took a moment to register just how pertinent his enquiries were. In the cutaways, he lounged a little in his chair and I half-expected to see a panama and a cheroot in a holder nearby ready for his break – he looked, a a year characterised by relentless discomfort, a man comfortable in his own skin. What a contrast with the incessant jabbering of their Australian counterparts.

The best memory went above and beyond cricket and takes me back to where I came in. The country whose leadership and populace led the world in their single-minded determination to defeat the virus were reaping their rewards. Kids played pick-up cricket round the back of the scoreboard; spectators wandered about half watching the cricket, half enjoying a summer’s day; and men and women sat at tables, drink in hand, laughing at tall tales of matches called off for snow in Invercargill back in the 70s.

It looked like the prize that is now almost within our grasp – it looked normal.

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